To President Scott Cowen, to Chairman Lapeyre, and the Board of Trustees, the faculty, the administrators, staff and alumni, the parents, the family, the friends, the musicians, the supporters, my fellow honorees, Ruby Bridges—who by the way the crow flies lived about three miles away from me and on your shoulders I stand [applause]—Peter Lacks, whose brilliance has already lit the past but will light our future without doubt. Laura—well done, congratulations. Troy, our ambassador for the city. Thank you all.
Now it is my honor to be with you this morning. As you may have heard, I am the first alum of Tulane University to be able to address the unified commencement, and you just heard that I am a native New Orleanian, so there’s really only one thing to say: "Where y’at, Green Wave? [cheers and applause] How's your mom and ‘em?"
Seriously, it makes me very happy to be your commencement speaker and to congratulate you and all of my fellow graduates of this wonderful university. I’m also glad to see all of you here – and impressed that you look so awake. I know some of you made a long process of waving good-bye and I’m guessing some of you waved good-bye until a few hours ago, if not this very minute. [laughter] So I do have a public service announcement—I’m going to speak for about 10 minutes here. Mothers is down the street. Ask somebody to hold your seat, go get some grits and debris. That’s cure for what’s ailing you right now. [laughter]
Today I actually have one more opportunity to fulfill two lifelong dreams. The first, of course, is to be able to address you, the graduating class of my beloved alma mater, Tulane. But second, there is something I’ve always wanted to say standing on the floor of the Superdome, and it’s this: “Hi, Mama. I love you. WHO DAT?” [applause]
Now I just gave my mom a shout out, but we know this would not have been possible without the families and classmates and professors and mentors and friends over your years. We owe them much more than a round of applause. Give them a “who dat?”, give them something. [applause and cheers]
Now, when it comes to Tulane and being the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, I actually could be here in my professional capacity. I could talk about Tulane and the fact that you’ve made environmental studies a priority, and that almost every school in the university offers an environmental major or an environmental focus, or the fact that the school has also taken the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment to help develop solutions to climate change.
But as important as all those things are, I’m mostly glad to be here because this is my home.
I grew up in New Orleans, in the 9th ward In Pontchartrain Park. It was a wonderful place. The actor Wendell Pierce, the musician Terrence Blanchard were my neighbors. My dad was a mail man, and he used to take me on his route to visit folks in the CBD, sometimes in the French Quarter, who were his customers.
I started school here, seven years after Ruby Bridges' historic walk. After I graduated from St. Mary’s Dominican High School, I crossed Claiborne Ave and headed down Broadway to Tulane. The first time I came to Tulane was, indeed, for a calculator.
Today, I work in the cabinet of the nation’s first African American president. [cheers and applause] I’m the mother of two teenage sons, and they’re about to enter into their own college years. So I have seen firsthand life’s rewards and life’s challenges.
So I’d like to make a couple of observations today.
Now I know in a ceremony like this I cannot get by with the usual stuff, no “real world,” no "follow your dreams," no "do not be afraid to fail," no "never give up."
But the real reason is because those words don’t measure up to what you’ve accomplished or do a bit of justice to what you already know sitting there.
Now President Cowen—his suggestion was to talk about me. Yeah - that'll thrill ya! Though the temptation is strong, I must admit, to bore you with stories of the Tulane I knew—1983, almost thirty years ago, very very very different times indeed—although if you pull me aside afterwards I will tell you about the original Tyler’s Beer Garden on Tchoupitoulas Street. Anybody remember that?
You’ll see. One day you’ll be back here with your kids, and you’ll bore them about, you know, your stories, Domilise's, Jazz Fest, making a habit of not telling them what you really did in the French Quarter. So I’ll spare you my flashback—it wouldn’t be accurate—except for one thing.
In my day, choosing Tulane was pretty simple. It’s a great school with an incredible history and fantastic academic standards. That reputation is why – as you all know – people often refer to Harvard as the Tulane of the North. [laughter and applause] Tulane is, undoubtedly, the finest school in the great state of Louisiana. [applause]
And of course, the city of New Orleans is unlike any city in the world. You will never find a place to match the food and music and the spirit and the culture here. No other place is as much fun as New Orleans.
I don’t think I’d be too far off in saying that some of the people I went to school with factored Bourbon Street into their college admissions process. It’s not a hard choice to make, right—you can come here and get a great education, have fun, and experience the city.
So for me, 29 years ago, coming to Tulane was pretty simple. But as the class of 2012, I know your choice was not so simple.
In the 30 years between my college years and yours, this city saw some of the hardest times in its long history.
I was here, in New Orleans, a few days before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. I was here to celebrate my mother’s birthday on August 27. It was fortunate that I was around, because I was able to drive her out of the city. My neighborhood in Pontchartrain Park was virtually destroyed. Flooding ruined my mom’s home – the home I and my family grew up in.
In the days after the waters receded, my mother went down to the house. But the picture I have in my mind I can't ever erase is the day in the hot sun of a July, she sat on the sidewalk, in her wheelchair, as Catholic Charities came and took every item out of that house. Every waterlogged picture. All of her clothes. Every piece of furniture that she had saved so hard with my dad to buy. Everything. And she said, “I saw it go in. I'ma stand here and watch it go out.”
That storm closed this school for the first time since the Civil War. Students dispersed to hundreds of college campuses across the country, and didn’t come back again until the next year.
And then two years later – y'all made a decision, many of you, to come here and when you did things were so uncertain. You knew you were coming into an era where there were so many challenges to face. Some of you were here already—you grew up here or you were in school, graduate school—and so for me and you, we knew what was going on.
Thirty years ago was a safe decision to come to Tulane. I always felt like I made the safe decision. For those of you who were here, the safe decision would have been to go somewhere else to school.
Others of you had the courage and compassion to come here to help rebuild immediately after the storm – and then for whatever reason you decided to stay for your education.
Whatever your reasons, I know that all of you understood that choosing Tulane University would place demands on you that other schools would not. You knew it would challenge you to live up to the motto of this place: "Not for one's self, but for one's own."
To be very honest with you – I know how hard a choice it was to come here, because I weighed a similar decision myself.
After the storm, I dreamed of coming back and building a new home for my mother. Because I’m an environut, I thought it should be energy efficient, green, you know, out of the floodplain. I had visions.
I thought hard about coming back – and considered what it would be like to spend my next years living here – helping. To bring my kids here, to ask my family to relocate. I almost left my job with the state of New Jersey – but ultimately my mother encouraged me to stay in the field I loved so much and continue working in public service.
Now a few months later, I was made commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and it wasn’t really too long after that when the President-elect Obama called me and asked me to join his Cabinet as administrator of the EPA. And by the way – my mom's house is being rebuilt by Wendell Pierce, who’s also a land developer. How about that? [applause]
And then two years ago, when the area was hit by another tragedy – the oil gusher in the Gulf – because I didn’t come back then I was in a position to help. Given my very personal connection, the president named me to lead federal efforts to restore this region after the spill and after decades of environmental abuse.
So my choice turned out to be the right one for me. But see, I'm fascinated because you all made the choice I didn't. YOU CAME HERE.
While I ultimately didn’t, I know what it means that you did. I know what it means that you stepped up. And I’m proud to see what you have done with the choice you made.
You are part of what President Cowen calls the “new” Tulane, one that is active in rebuilding and reinvigorating New Orleans.
Today you receive a degree from the first national research institution to include public service in the requirements for graduation. [applause]
In the face of disaster, you came here to serve. You are a national beacon of service. That service - your service – has now redefined Tulane, and will for the rest of its history. You changed your world, you changed this school, you changed this city because you came.
Of course I can't tell you about 30 years ago, because you changed it. It means so much to this school, so much to this city, so much to me. If I can tell you one thing today, from this New Orleans girl and Tulane grad, it’s this: Thank you.
And have no doubt that what you’ve done means a great deal to this country in a difficult time.
When people see that this city is able to get on its feet again; when they see that it can emerge stronger and with a sense of accomplishment and community and possibility, they see what it takes to rebuild.
When they see the school at the heart of New Orleans turning out a new generation of leaders and innovators and leader servants – it shines a light on the road ahead of all of us.
So that’s why I’m not going to lecture you about the lessons you’ll learn in the so-called real world. The truth is, the real world needs a lecture from you. [applause]
So please, please – go out there, give the world YOUR lecture. Don't be shy. Don’t be a jerk about it. We’re from the South – say please and thank you, no matter how annoying they may be.
But know this – you have the best preparation you can get, anywhere. Know in your heart there was no more important thing you could have done than to come here, no better place for you to have come than here, no better time for you to have been here. No other college, no other city, no other moment in history could have prepared you for your lecture like this one.
The choice you made to come here says that you are someone who faces challenges, and does not run. And there is nothing we need more in these days than people who are ready to face challenges.
Let me close by saying that you will not be alone. You are members of a family, many. The people who are here around you are the same people who will be with you through the course of your life. They've always been here. Yes – your family and your friends and your teachers and your mentors and now your fellow graduates.
Nowhere I'd rather be than this moment.
I'm so happy to celebrate with you today, Class of 2012, and I look forward to seeing what you’ll accomplish and hearing your stories.
I wish you luck and I wish you so much more than luck.
Thank you very much. Congratulations. [applause and cheers]
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